Why Is It Worth Discovering Authentic Nyonya Food ?

Would you like to try Nyonya food in Penang?

That was the question our friend Kathleen, who writes about heritage and culture at Kat Pegi Mana: Where Is Kat Going, asked us.

We had just arrived in Penang, eager to discover the local food scene, and were surprised to hear about Nyonya food or Peranakan cuisine.

Penang is known as one of the birthplaces of Peranakan culture. Peranakan means “straits born” or the descendants of Chinese immigrants who married and integrated with local Malays.

Known as “Baba” for males and “Nyonya” for females, Nyonya food or Peranakan cooking is a result of blending Chinese ingredients with distinct spices and cooking techniques used by locals.

The result is a unique cuisine that is aromatic, spicy, and herbal. Fresh herbs like lemongrass, galangal (wild ginger), turmeric, chilies, shallots, spicy shrimp paste (belacan) are used in most Nyonya dishes.

To better understand the Peranakan culture and Nyonya food, we spent an immersive day with Kathleen, discovering Nyonya food at a well-known restaurant and visiting one of the most famous Peranakan museums in Penang.

Join us as we discover authentic Nyonya food and Peranakan culture in Penang, Malaysia.

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Experiencing Nyonya Cuisine

While we were planning for our immersive Peranakan day, Kathleen told us she is a descendant of Baba- Nyonya heritage. Her grandmother was of Nyonya descent, and she grew up enjoying the harmonious flavors of Nyonya food. Given her heritage, we let her pick the restaurant for our first Nyonya food experience.

EatingwithKathleen_NyonyaFood_AuthenticFoodQuestDiscovering Nyonya food with Kathleen

Perut Rumah Restaurant, Penang

Perut Rumah located in a two-story bungalow is one of the few Nyonya restaurants in Penang. The interior is a charming mix of Nyonya artifacts and Chinese decorations.

In Malay, perut means stomach and rumah is house. It is a term for the kitchen, which is the center of the household.

The menu offers an extensive list of Nyonya dishes. With Kathleen being the expert, we let her choose the dishes that were most representative of Nyonya cuisine.

Perut Rumah Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestEntrance of Perut Rumah Restaurant

Discovering Nyonya Food

Nyonya food incorporates traditional Chinese foods with modifications, Malay style dishes and importantly, invented or innovative foods. In addition, Nyonyas are famous for their colorful and delightful cakes or sweets (keuhs).

At the restaurant, we had a variety of dishes that were both Chinese and Malay oriented. At the time of our visit, the restaurant was out of one traditional dish that we unfortunately missed. This dish is a pickled, sweet and sour Acar Fish, that is a must-try Nyonya dish.

The portions are humongous and large enough to share. We enjoyed our meal with delicious barley lime tea and honey lemon tea. Read more about barley tea and other unusual Malaysian drinks.

Nyonya Appetizers and Main Dish 

Nyonya Top Hats – Kuih Paiti

Kuih Paiti is a Peranakan dish that is also found in Singapore, where it is known as Kueh Pie Tee. It is a classic Nyonya finger food, that is prepared in little pie shells that resemble top hats.

Savory crispy pastry shells are filled up with a tasty mix of thinly sliced, turnips, carrots, bamboo shoots, and french beans.

The Top Hats are served with a delicious homemade chilli sauce, that adds the perfect finish.

The contrast of textures between the crispy cups and moist fillings made eating these a truly amazing experience. These are so delicious, you definitely will not stop at just one.

KuihPaiti_NyonyaFood_AuthenticFoodQuestIntricate and delightful typical Nyonya appetizers

Nyonya Curry Chicken –  Kari Kay

This familiar and delightful dish is one we could not wait to try. Chicken curry is a popular Indian dish found all over the world. However, this particular Nyonya version had us begging for more.

A large bowl of steaming Nyonya chicken curry swimming in a thick sauce was served with individual servings of white rice.

The chicken curry was cooked in the traditional Nyonya bone-in style, infused with fresh curry paste and leaves. A coconut base made the curry creamy and full of flavor. This mouthwatering curry was incredibly aromatic with the chicken pieces easily falling off the bones.

KariKay_Nyonya_AuthenticFoodQuestDelicious chicken curry in a coconut sauce

Mixed Vegetables Stew- Nyonya Chap Chai

Chap Chai or Chap Chye is a traditional Nyonya dish that is enjoyed by Peranakans and non-Peranakans alike. It is a common Chinese dish and is typically eaten around Chinese New Year.

The vegetable stew was filled with a number of ingredients, with the “staples” being Chinese cabbage, carrots Chinese mushroom, black fungus, lily flower bud, beancurd and various other vegetables. There are many variations of the recipe and they are typically passed down from generation to generation.

What sets the Nyonya version apart, is the use of taucheo, fermented soya bean in the place of salt. While most of the ingredients used were new to us, we very much enjoyed the savory flavors.

This traditional and simple dish perfectly complemented the chicken curry. The dish had the essence of home-style cooking, the kind of vegetable stew one’s grandmother would make.

Nyonya Chap Chai Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestDelicious Mixed Vegetables Stew - Nyonya Chap Chai

Nyonya Desserts 

After our copious meal, we didn’t have any room left over for desserts at Perut Rumah restaurant. Instead, for the rest of our stay in Penang, we made it a point to discover the famous Nyonya treats.

 

Nyonya Cakes 

Nyonya cakes, also known as keuhs or kuih are renowned for their variety and richness.  They are bite-sized colorful desserts ranging from cookies, cakes, pastries to pudding. The base ingredient for these cakes is rice, rice flour or glutinous rice. The other main ingredients are coconut, tapioca and mung bean among others.

Nyonya cakes Authentic Food QuestColorful sweet Nyonya Cakes

The colors are the most striking characteristic of these cakes. You will find cakes with green, pink, yellow and blueish colors. Authentic cakes are made from natural colorings such as pandan leaves, gula melaka, rose syrup and egg yolk.

The texture of the cakes is quite different from Western pastries. The glutinous base makes the texture very chewy. Although coconut and palm sugar is often added to the cakes, they never taste overly sweet.

One other particularity of these small cakes is that they are mostly steamed and not baked. There are many varieties and we enjoyed sampling the different flavors regularly.

Sampling Nyonya Cakes in Penang

Nyonya Soya Bean Curd

While walking the streets one evening, we stumbled onto a small corner cafe that was making ice-cream and original Nyonya soybean curd. Intrigued by this flan like looking dessert, we decided to give it a try.

Nyonya Soya Bean curd is simply sweet tofu. It is made from soy milk transformed into curds by cooking it with gelatin or jelly powder, and then cooling it for hours before serving. The traditional soya bean curd has only sugar as one of the main ingredients. While flavored soya bean curds also have vanilla, sesame or green tea.

The texture of the Nyonya Soya Bean is similar to custard or soft flan. The taste is really mild and by itself, it can be quite bland. You want to try the vanilla, sesame, or green tea flavors for the best experience. This is the perfect dessert after a spicy or rich meal.

Soybean Curd Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestGreen Tea Nyonya Bean Curds

Pinang Peranakan Mansion: A Glimpse Into a Baba-Nyonya Home

In their day, the Babas and Nyonyas were the wealthy and influential people in the business world. To get a glimpse back in time of how the rich Straits Chinese settlers lived, we visited the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a cultural museum of Peranakan heritage.

The restored mansion is the former residence of Chung Keng Kwee, the wealthiest man in Penang during his time, and one of the leaders of the local Chinese community (Kapitan Cina).

Built at the end of the 19th century, this ornate mansion has an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western elements and a wealth of artifacts that transport you back in time.

Traditional Nyonyas are fiercely proud of their unique cuisine. Peranakan food takes a long time to prepare, and the women spend a better part of their lives in the kitchen preparing these dishes.

Given that food is our interest, the dining room and kitchen were the two most fascinating rooms to visit.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestCourtyard of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

The Opulent Dining Room

As soon as you enter the museum, you cannot help but notice the striking dining table. The opulent dining area reflects on the wealth and habits of the Peranakan at the time.

The meals are like ceremonies for entertaining guests and visitors.The art of cooking was an expression of cultural exuberance and eclecticism.

Dinning Table Pinang Peranakan Mansion Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestBeautiful dining room with golden ornaments

The Kitchen: the Most Important Room of the Peranakan House

Peranakan cooking is intricate and a complicated works of arts, requiring hours of preparation.

The kitchen was held by the women, the Nyonya. It is where the food is prepared with her army of servants. In and around the kitchen, the mistress would entertain friends, relatives. This is where the women in the household gathered.

Kitchen Pinang Peranakan Mansion Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestThe traditional Nyonya kitchen

In the kitchen, the stove was at the center, made of long bricks with holes. Firewood and charcoal were used to fuel the stove. With no refrigeration, they would keep the food in wooden boxes, with wire mesh sides suspended from the ceiling or placed on stilts to avoid ants.

Cooking utensils were stored on wooden racks hanging from the wall. Pots, pans, earthenware water jugs, mortar and pestle and bamboo trays were commonly used. Rice was kept in earthenware jars. Porcelain was used to keep sugar, salt and rice. And utensils from China such as Tiffin carriers were used to transport rice and meals to the table.

Traditional NyonyaTiffin Carriers Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestTraditionals Nyonya Tiffin Carriers - Photo credit: Evonne Chia

This visit to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion was an eye opener on the celebration of the Nyonya food at a Peranakan home.

With Kathleen at Pinang Peranakan Mansion Nyonya Food Authentic Food QuestWith Kathleen at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion
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In Summary

Malaysia is a country blessed with a wonderful blend of cultures. And, Peranakan culture through Nyonya food is worth discovering.

Nyonya cuisine is a significant marker of the Peranakan culture.The food is a medley of tastes – salty, sweet, spicy, and sour, which, in the hands of a Nyonya cook, is a wonderful collision of flavors.

Having Kathleen’s local knowledge and expert guidance enriched the experience. In Penang, don’t miss discovering Peranakan culture and Nyonya food.The cuisine, created by the women in the kitchen, has spawned a delicious new style of cooking, that must be experienced.

Have you heard of Nyonya food or Peranakan cuisine before? In the comments below, tell us which Nyonya food you would love to try!

Savor The Adventure!

Locations mentioned

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Address: Pinang Peranakan Museum, 29, Church Street, 10200 Penang.

Hours: Everyday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm

Entrance fees: 20RM per person (about $4.76 dollars).

Perut Rumah Restaurant

Address: 17, Jalan Bawasah, George Town.

Hours: Everyday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm

Prices: About 20 to 30 RM per dish ($4.76 to $7.10 USD)

Savor The Adventure!

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42 thoughts on “Why Is It Worth Discovering Authentic Nyonya Food ?”

  1. I haven’t tried eating Nonya food but it looks delicious! The appetizers alone is mouth-watering! Love the variety of colors of those cakes too. Good to know that they use natural colorings on them.

    Reply
  2. Oh my goodness, the top hats sound – and look! – amazing, as does the veggie stew. Love, love, LOVE exploring a place through it’s local cuisine! (And, as someone who’s limited her meat intake, it’s always great too see that there are so many veggie options when traveling – you just gotta look!) Pinning the heck outta this post!

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  3. Oh, no!!! I opened the post at the wrong time. It’s close to lunch time here in the U.S. and I know all those foods since I came from the neighboring country, Indonesia. And all I have right now is a left over soup from last night. 🙁

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  4. Strangely I’ve had the nyonya cakes here in Seattle. Somebody brought them to a party and they were gone in a heartbeat cuz they were bombdigity. The many uses of rice in desserts and just everything always fascinates me.

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    • That’s amazing that you had Nyonya cakes in Seattle. Sounds like they were homemade. They are so many different kinds and we never found one we didn’t like 🙂 Indeed the plethora of rice-based desserts are tasty and worthy of exploration. Thanks, Rob.

      Reply
    • Thank you and so glad you enjoyed learning about Nyonya Chap Chai. In terms of recipes, the best bet would be to find one on Google. There are tons of recipes, including videos. Finding the products locally might be the biggest challenge. Please do let us know what recipe you end up making. Cheers!

      Reply
  5. What a fantastic experience to have, as well as fantastic food! The description and photo of the chicken curry has legitimately made my stomach rumble, and the cakes are so colourful!

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  6. Of all your posts, this has absolutely been my favorite! The history and culture that you guys are able to learn about through food is amazing. I especially love the history of cultures mixing so I found the history of the Peranakan culture fascinating. And to be able to visit the mansion must have been so cool!!

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    • Thanks so much Vicky. So glad you enjoyed discovering Peranakan culture through food, much like we did. The mix of cultures and then to taste the food is truly fascinating. Exploring the mansion and seeing how the Baba-Nyonya lived in the past was truly eye-opening as well. Thanks again and so glad you enjoyed the article.

      Reply
  7. No, I never heard about nyonya food and I enjoyed it through your beautiful descriptions and photos. I would like to try the chicken curry and the appetizers but I am not sure about the cakes, he hee. I always enjoy your food quests and this one with the help of a local is even better. Good job!

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    • Thanks Elisa and so glad to hear that you enjoy reading about our quests. In this case, we are really grateful to Kathleen who introduced us to the food and from a personal experience. Appreciate your feedback. Cheers!

      Reply
  8. Such a great way to explore a new culture, through its food. I’d never heard of the Peranakan culture, but enjoyed learning about it here. I’d love to try the Kuih Paiti, the bean curd and to explore Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

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    • Thanks so much Carol. We had never heard of Peranakan culture and Nyoyna food either. So delicious and our hope is that travelers will through food learn different aspects of the local culture. Glad you enjoyed the article.

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    • Thanks Carol. Indeed, our hope with authentic food quest is to inspire travelers to savor the local flavors of a destination. In so doing, they’ll learn a new aspect of the local culture and have deeper travel experiences. Glad you enjoyed discovering Peranakan culture with us.

      Reply
  9. Those Top Hats look so delicious Rosemary. The wonderful mix of flavors and ingredients in each of these dishes makes for delightful fare.

    I recall seeing a heavy Chinese influence in Penang – especially in the neighborhood where we stayed, by Queensbay Mall – so this makes perfect sense. I actually saw more Chinese folks than any other culture, including local folks as well as Indians, who have quite a presence in Malaysia too. Lovely melting pot, the land and this island is.

    Ryan

    Reply
    • You are right Ryan, depending on the neighborhood, we also observed different Malay communities. However, on our quest for the local flavors, we made sure to eat at Chinese, Malay and Indian dominant hawker centers. In the end, we found a delicious mix, that is not necessarily “owned” by one group, but representative of Malaysia. Indeed a fascinating melting pot! Thanks, Ryan.

      Reply
  10. I didn’t realise the significance and variance of the Nyonya cuisine, so this article was a great introduction to that for me. I love Malaysian food, but I now wonder if over the years I’ve actually had some Nyonya cuisine and not realised it. I absolutely loved your photo of the tiffin carriers – so beautiful decorated – I want one!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much Hannah, and glad you enjoyed the article. If you spent time in Penang, you probably have eaten Nyonya food. One of the most popular is otak-otak. Now that this article has provided an introduction, on your next trip seek out this delightful cuisine. Glad you like the tiffin carriers 🙂

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  11. I had frankly never heard of Nyonya Cuisine. But thanks for letting us know about another dimension of Chinese and Malay cuisine which are already rich anyway! Your dining room sure looks royal!

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  12. I had never heard of nyonya food. Penang (and Malaysia) are quite the foodie’s paradise. Those Nyonya Top Hats look so delicious that I can see how easy it would be to pop a few too many and feel full before that gorgeous mixed vegetable stew. I’ve never quite fallen in love with Asian desserts, with the exception being Mango Sticky Rice. But, I do like the delicate vanilla flavor of pandan and would love to try those authentic cakes.

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    • Glad you enjoyed learning about Nyonya food. Indeed Malaysia is a must-visit destination for the food. Agree, mango sticky rice is amazing and many of these little Nyonya treats are pretty tasty as well. Good food all around 🙂

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  13. I always love getting a local’s perspective on cuisine. Kathleen did you right! I can’t get over the beautiful, bright colors on the dessert. I love that it comes from natural coloring!

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    • When you get a local perspective on the culture, it is fascinating. We agree Kelly, and are glad that Kathleen introduced us to Peranakan culture and Nyonya food. The desserts are delicious and colored with natural ingredients such as pandan leaves.

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  14. Hi Rosemary & Claire, what a fantastic post! You encapsulated a perfect summary of Nyonya food 🙂 Thank you for mentioning me in the post, and I’m really happy that you both enjoyed our outing together in Penang. If you are planning to return to South-East Asia again, don’t forget to look me up! Take care, and HAPPY TRAVELS…

    Reply
    • Thank so much Kathleen and THANK YOU for being such a wonderful tour guide. We really enjoyed discovering this unique and culture. We are certainly looking forward to coming back again to Penang and catching up. Thanks again and safe travels!!

      Reply

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